By Courtney Price
Durham VOICE Co-Editor
While he talks about the future, T.J. McDermott has the past on his mind.
McDermott is rebuilding King’s Sandwich Shop on the corner of Foster Street and Geer Street to bring the iconic restaurant back to Durham.
“A historic little building like this can take us to the past,” he said.
King’s closed about three years ago, after serving up sandwiches, hot dogs and hamburgers for more than 60 years.
Until McDermott bought the building in April, the building sat unkempt and falling into disrepair. Now it stands on the mostly run-down corner with a fresh coat of white paint and striking red awnings.
“A lot of people looked at this building and said, ‘It’s just too much work,’” McDermott said. “But this is a direct link to our past.”
McDermott has seen how strong that link really is. He’s heard countless stories from people in Durham who remember what King’s used to be.
“It’s that little kid inside us who remembers going to a hot dog stand with our granddad,” he said. “Every town has a hot dog stand, and it brings the people closer.”
Randy Butler, who grew up in Durham, loved eating at King’s every day when he was a child.
“When I was growing up, I used to go to work with my dad, and that’s how I got paid,” Butler said. “That was back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Butler said his dad asked every day what he wanted to eat for lunch, and he always wanted King’s.
“I would always get a hot dog, a drink, fries and a Lance oatmeal cookie,” he said.
Butler said he would eat most of the hot dog and half the fries, and then throw the bread and fries to the birds as he finished the cookie and drink.
Lafaye Daye, of Durham, worked a few blocks from King’s and said she used to walk down to King’s almost every day for 25 years.
“The other stuff downtown is high-dollar,” she said. “At King’s you got what you paid for and more.”
Country ham biscuits, hot dogs and BLTs were just some of the things Daye recalled ordering.
She really loved the hot dogs. “They were DI-licious—not delicious, but DI-licious hot dogs,” she said. “Everybody liked them.”
McDermott has heard story after story about the old King’s, but there’s one thing he hears consistently:
“So when are you going to be opening?” Daye asked.
He originally planned to open this month, but a few problems arose that set him back.
“It will probably be after the first of the year,” he said. “I have a friend who says, ‘It always takes longer than you expect, even when you expect it to take longer than you expect.’”
McDermott has a construction background, so that part has been easy for him. “I wasn’t expecting to have to replace the whole roof,” he said.
Familiarizing himself with the building requirements for restaurants and fixing a broken water main are some other challenges he has faced.
McDermott put his life savings into this project, and sometimes gets discouraged. But fond stories and are what keep him going.
Almost every day someone will drive by and yell, “Two all the way!” and he said that always lifts his spirits.
“I’ve been so amazed at the community response on this thing,” he said. “I’m a bit of a dreamer, and I tend to bite off more than I can chew.”
Though his focus has been on recreating the old King’s, he has added a few of his own touches to the building, including a patio behind the store for picnic tables and seating around the front sign.
Community and family support, he said, is what really got him where he is. His sister has moved to the area to help open the store, and people in the neighborhood surrounding the shop have offered their help at no charge.
He said one person nearby who has helped is Paul Toma, co-owner of Common Ground Green Building Center down the street. Toma has given McDermott space in his warehouse and let him use a forklift several times.
“A hot dog place is an integrating place. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, rich or poor; people will stand outside a hot dog stand chatting,” McDermott said.